Rappahannock citizens concerned about AT&T’s application to erect two more 199-foot cell phone towers in the county attended an “informational” meeting on Monday to voice their concerns and hear their options.
The meeting sponsored by the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP), the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) and private citizens, came in the waning days before Wednesday night’s meeting of the Rappahannock County Planning Commission on the applications, at which the applications were both recommended for approval by the county supervisors.
Monday’s informational meeting at the Link in Sperryville attracted an audience of more than 40 citizens.
“Both proponents and opponents have something to gain by holding AT&T’s feet to the fire” on its application, according to the PEC’s W. Todd Benson.
The planning commission must make a recommendation to the board of supervisors after considering the applications. One tower would go on the grounds of the high school, the other off Woodward Road west of Sperryville.
On Jan. 3, the supervisors voted 4-1 to approve AT&T’s proposal to erect a 199-foot monopole for cell phone service near Round Hill Road off U.S. 522 in Boston. Besides the proposed cell towers off Woodward and the high school, there are proposals to extend two existing Sprint towers at Ben Venue and Amissville.
The applications have raised questions about cell tower safety, aesthetics and service.
“The issue is, does having cell phone service trump the values we say we have as a county,” said Don Loock, PEC’s representative for Rappahannock County, before turning over the meeting at the Link to Benson.
Benson, a resident of Huntly, is the Fauquier County field officer for the PEC. He previously worked as a town planner, county zoning official town attorney and county attorney.
He found fault with AT&T’s application. While it answers questions about line of sight, Benson said, it needs “better information about service” and how far from U.S. routes 211 and 522 will service be improved.
He said it’s his opinion that the application hasn’t addressed public health, safety and general welfare issues and that the board of supervisors are within their rights “to say it deserves a second look.”
John McCarthy, county administrator, affirmed that health, safety and general welfare is a criteria that the board must consider and added, “I’m sure he [Benson] and Don Loock will try to convince the board that it has not been met and the burden will be on the applicant to prove that it is being met.”
Benson added that he also feels the application hasn’t addressed what can be done to “mitigate” the effects of erecting a 199-foot tower, such as blending it into the background or putting it on a slope, thereby making a shorter tower possible.
He pointed out one tower would be on the grounds of Rappahannock County High School and he said safety questions have not been addressed.
“We would hope you would call the board of supervisors and the planning commission to say there is no need to rush to judgment,” Benson said.
The school system will be paid a fee of $1,200 per month for having the pole on school property, Superintendent Aldridge Boone said at Tuesday night’s board of education meeting.
He said he didn’t want the school system drawn into the debate over cell towers.
“Nothing we have done is taking a position on cell phone towers,” he said.
The arrangement will allow the school system to put a transmitter on the tower. Improved cell phone reception will allow better communication with bus drivers, it was noted.
Board Vice Chairman Aline Johnson said that although the “money is good, safety is the main issue.”
Board member Rosa Crocker said that having the tower is a step toward “improving the technological capability” of the school system.
Boone said there is no upfront cost to the schools for allowing the tower.
County Board of Supervisors Chairman Roger Welch was in the audience at the Link on Monday, and asked Benson how the application could be denied if it complied with the zoning ordinance.
Benson said the board is within its rights to set conditions for approval based on concerns over health, safety and welfare. The board has that discretionary power in special use permit matters, he said. Each of the five tower applications is unique and the county is not obliged to approve the rest because it approved the Boston tower, he said.
Questions and comments were taken from the floor. John Kiser, who said he was involved in the effort 10 years ago in the fight over Sprint cell towers, noted time was taken to negotiate. The result was a better placement of towers to blend into the background, he noted. “Why not take a couple more months? My plea is let’s slow down, let’s do it right.”
Richard Biby of Tiger Valley suggested as alternate locations for a cell tower Red Oak Mountain, where he said a fire tower already exists, Turkey Mountain, and Hickerson Mountain.
Ron Maxwell of Flint Hill noted the planning commission took action before Christmas and the board of supervisors acted just after New Year’s Day. Both actions occurred “when people weren’t looking,” he said. He added that safety should be a consideration when the board of supervisors takes up the matter.
The News attempted to get answers to questions arising from Monday’s meeting from Donohue & Stearns, the Alexandria law firm that specializes in real estate and wireless issues and is working on AT&T’s behalf.
“On behalf of Mr. Donohue we have ‘no comment’ at this time. Your questions and others will be addressed tonight [Wednesday] at the Planning Commission hearing,” the firm responded in an email statement received Wednesday.